Our digestive tract is vulnerable to infection because it is open at both ends and plays host to anything we ingest, as well as anything else entering from our external environment. We can thank our friendly bacteria—our microflora—for coating the entire tract, thereby creating a physical barrier against unwanted microbes and viruses. Additionally, the wall of the gut maintains a pH from 4.0 to 5.0. This acidic environment is not conducive to the growth of pathogenic materials that require a more basic environment to thrive. This group of friendly microflora also neutralizes toxins derived from pathogenic microbes in our ingested foods. But their protection of our digestive tract doesn’t stop there. Microflora also produce specific substances designed to break down each type of intruder that threatens our immune system. In doing so, they alert our immune system to get ready for battle. The normal gut microflora provides a major source of energy and nourishment for the cells lining the digestive tract—and ultimately, the rest of your body. Apart from keeping the gut wall in good shape, the healthy microflora populating this wall take an active role in the digestion and absorption of foods. In addition to this, they are able to manufacture essential vitamins, all of which produce immune-strengthening substances. Without the good microbes, food is not properly absorbed and essential nutrients cannot be assimilated, which leads to malnourishment. When this happens, your body’s defense systems are quickly lowered as cells are starved of energy and are further denied growth, repair, and maintenance. Fatigue and sickness quickly ensue, which provides the opportunistic flora that live in the gut, under tight control by the beneficial flora, favorable conditions that permit them to gain the upper hand. The entire immune system then gets out of balance and is therefore weakened, which makes the person immune compromised. You can see, from the previous example, just how important balanced microflora are to your well-being. This normal microflora and the human body have a dynamic, mutually beneficial relationship. The microorganisms gain shelter, nutrition, and transport, and they flourish in the stable environment of the living host. In turn, the microorganisms help your body by aiding in digestion, stimulating your immune system, and protecting your body’s tissues from colonization by harmful microbes. The presence of these microorganisms elicits an immune response that keeps the body’s defense mechanism active so that when a disease-causing microorganism— called an antigen, which can be bacteria, fungi, viruses, or parasites—infects the body, your immune response will be faster and of greater intensity.
When There’s a Lack of Friendly Microbes So what happens when you are deficient in friendly bacteria? To start, you would be unable to digest fiber, and as a result you would become deficient in certain vitamins. Such deficiencies bring a whole host of conditions such as anemia, a condition in which a person has insufficient red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues. There are several mechanisms behind this. First, there’s an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria (most commonly Escherichia coli, and Streptococcus and Enterococcus species) that thrive on iron before your body can utilize or absorb it. Second, with a decreased amount of the friendly microflora and overgrowth of the pathogenic bacteria in your gut, your body cannot break down fiber, which can cause malabsorption problems. It may also induce a high frequency of diarrhea, which can upset the body’s electrolyte balance and ability to utilize important minerals and vitamins. In addition to the resulting deficiency in blood-supporting vitamins and minerals, new bacteria will move in that thrive on iron, and trying to supplement your diet with iron will only fortify these pathogenic bacteria. Here are other nutrients and vitamins that can become deficient from a lack of microflora to digest fiber: • magnesium (involved in several hundred enzymatic reactions, many of which contribute to production of energy and cardiovascular function) • zinc (needed for the body’s immune system to function properly) • selenium (protects the immune system by preventing the formation of free radicals) • copper (aids in the formation of bone, hemoglobin, and red blood cells) • calcium (vital for the formation of strong bones and teeth and for the maintenance of healthy gums) • manganese (needed for protein and fat metabolism, a healthy immune system, and blood sugar regulation) • sulfur (disinfects the blood, helps the body resist pathogenic bacteria, and protects cells) • phosphorus (needed for blood clotting, bone and tooth formation, cell growth, normal heart rhythm, and kidney function) • potassium (important for a healthy nervous system, a regular heart rhythm, and stable blood pressure) • sodium (necessary for maintaining proper blood pH and for stomach, nerve, and muscle function) • vitamin B1 (thiamine) (needed in the production of hydrochloric acid, which is important for proper digestion)
vitamin B2 (riboflavin) (necessary for red blood cell formation, antibody production, cell respiration, and growth) • vitamin B3 (niacin) (aids in the production of hydrochloric acid for the digestive system) • vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) (involved in more bodily functions, both physically and mentally, than almost any other single nutrient) • vitamin B12 (important for alleviating fatigue, stress, and anxiety) • vitamin C (required for at least three hundred metabolic functions in the body; more on this antioxidant in chapter 3) • vitamin A (enhances immunity) • vitamin D (necessary for growth) • folic acid (important for alleviating fatigue, stress, and anxiety, and has disease-prevention properties) • omega-3 fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) (essential in the transmission of nerve impulses and needed for the normal development and functioning of the brain) • omega-6 fatty acids, which include linoleic and gamma-linolenic acids (play an important role in brain function, skin and hair growth, bone health, reproduction, and healthy metabolism) • omega-9 fatty acids (play an important role in the production of prostaglandins, lowers LDL cholesterol levels, and used to build omega-3s and -6s in the body) • taurine (a building block of all the other amino acids that make up protein. It is needed for the digestion of fats, the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and the control of serum cholesterol levels.) Fermented foods introduce beneficial microorganisms and other healing substances such as vitamins, minerals, and enzymes into the body; all of these restore the balance of the intestinal flora and improve digestive health. Increasing evidence suggests that the gastrointestinal tract and digestive system play an integral role in our health. Because the friendly bacteria left behind as a by-product of fermentation reside mainly in the gut, they can support digestion and absorption of nutrients. The community of beneficial microorganisms within the body is what helps manufacture essential vitamins and minerals and provide important enzymes necessary for digestion. And when gastrointestinal health is promoted, overall health is supported.